Ride for the Brand
"Beckett, you've got until sunup tomorrow to get off King's property. We don't like squatters," Mendell stated.
Mendell was a big bear of a man, with a permanent five o'clock shadow and a chew of tobacco perpetually bulging his lower lip. He was Jeremiah King's foreman, not a bad man, but one that rode for the brand. Jeremiah King was not a bad man, either, when you got down to it. He was just used to getting what he wanted, and was not above riding roughshod over others to do it.
Beckett just stood there, his Henry rifle hanging loosely from the crook of his arm, facing the group of four horsemen spread out in front of him.
Suddenly Chavez, a wiry little half-breed, nudged his horse forward a step.
"Let me take heem now, boss. I can take heem."
Before Mendell could respond, a woman's throaty voice cut in from the doorway. "This here is a Roper revolving shotgun. She carries four shots, and if you breathe wrong, Mr. Chavez, you will catch all of them in your gut. I do not suggest you try it."
Mathiue Beckett chuckled to himself. Angie had more than her share of fire; that was one reason why he had married her.
Mendell leaned out over the side of his horse and spit a long stream of brown tobacco juice at an unoffending ant, then sat back up and looked Beckett in the eyes. "You been warned."
With that he turned his horse and started away.
"Mendell?" Mathiue said.
The big man stopped his horse but did not turn.
"I own this land, fair and square. Thirty acres, bought and paid for. You've no right to push me off what is legally mine."
Now Mendell did turn his horse. "You go tell that to King. I have my orders, you have your warning."
He turned again and rode away. The two who had not spoken during the exchange followed, but Chavez sat his horse a second, looking from Mathiue to the shadows of the doorway.
"Just wait, amigo. I will have my chance." His smile was wicked.
Mathiue smiled also. "I look forward to it."
Chavez just continued to smile. "And then I will have your wife." Then turned his horse and rode away.
Beckett's smile vanished. "Chavez, if you so much as lay a finger on my wife, I promise that what is left of you will give a coyote the dry heaves."
Chavez seemed not to hear. Mathiue stood there, watching until the man vanished over a rise, then he turned and walked back into the small homestead, which was backed up against a tall cliff in a good defensive position. They had food for two weeks, and Mathiue had run a pipe from the spring to the house, not only to make things easier for Angie, but to make it possible to stay inside without having to worry about water if attacked.
Mathiue stepped inside the house. "Well, there it is. We leave or we fight," he said.
"Nowhere is perfect. And where will we go from here if we leave?" Angie said. Then she smiled playfully. "And besides, you knew when you chose this place that Jeremiah King would not like us being here." She flipped her long brown hair over her shoulder and smiled at him.
"Yes, but I hoped that legally owning the land would keep him quiet." He grinned ruefully. "I guess not."
"We'll be okay," she said. "Maybe he's only bluffing." Angie came over and kissed him, then looked at him with her soft, dark eyes.
Mathiue sat down on a chair, staring down at the pine board floor Angie was so proud of.
"Not Jeremiah King."
Randy Mendell stood in front of King, arms crossed. "I don't think they're going to leave, boss."
"Fine. After you push them off, I want you to take Jefferson, Chavez, Barney, and Killoe up to the North Fork and round up those stragglers from the breaks. Push them down to the upper flats."
"Okay, but boss..."
"What is it, Mendell?" King said impatiently.
"He said they own the land; that they bought those thirty acres they're runnin' cows on."
"Nonsense! It is of no matter if they do. I was here first, and if we allow one squatter to stay, they'll all come, and want just a little piece, and then they'll kill a couple cows for food, and the next thing you know, they're selling them over the border and we fold up."
"So what do you want us to do then?"
"Push them off! Use whatever force is neccessary! If they refuse to leave, burn them out. If they shoot at you, shoot back. Kill them if you have to, but get them off. Oh, and tell John I want him to stay here tomorrow and deal with that section of corral fence that needs fixing."
"Okay, boss..." Mendell was still unsure. What if they refused to leave?
He slept very little that night.
The sun was just peeking over the sawbacked ridge to the east when Mathiue heard the sound of approaching horses. Angie was beside him at the window, the barrel of the Roper shotgun protruding menacingly from the peephole in the thick shutters.
"Here we go," Mathieu said grimly."Watch Chavez,"
Angie said nothing. Despite her constantly sunny disposition and joking manner, she understood the gravity of the situation.
He was about to step out the door before she said, "Be careful."
Matheui Beckett walked out of the doorway, his Henry .44 hanging again from the crook of his arm, his Walch Navy .44 revolver now slung low on his hip.
Randy Mendell pulled up a few yards in front of him, with the same group of horsemen with him as the day before.
"We warned you to get out, Beckett. We've got orders to push you off using whatever force is neccessary, so don't make this hard on us. I'll tell you what, I'll give you an' your woman one more chance to leave, right now. You can both saddle up an' ride off, but your chance to take your belongings with you is gone. What do you say?"
"The only way," Mathiue said evenly, "that we're leaving this place is if we're dead. This is our land, boys, paid for by us, and it's all we have. We're staying."
"Dang it, man!" Randy flared. "I don't want to kill you! You can always start somewhere else, but not if you're dead! Now git!"
"We like it here, Mendell. And if everywhere has people like Jeremiah King, no, we can't start somewhere else.We'd only get pushed off, just like you're trying to do now."
"Please, man!" Mendell sounded almost desperate. "If you don't leave, people will die today, and I know it won't be just you. Your wife will die, and I see that shotgun barrel in the window! I know well enough that she'll take people with her when she does, and I don't want to die gutshot with a blast from one of those! I seen what a shotgun does to a man!"
"Well," Mathiue was calm. He had been here before. " we're staying, so why don't you just ride away or open the ball so we can get this over with?" Mathiue knew Angie was watching Chavez, so he had kept his eyes on Mendell.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Chavez's hand suddenly flash with blurring speed, streaking for his gun.
The window fairly exploded with flame as the shotgun bellowed, and Chavez was flung from his saddle like a rag doll, torn nearly in two.
Mathiue fired from the hip, aiming for Mendell's chest as the man clawed for his pistol, but his horse tossed its head in the same instant, catching the bullet intended for its rider. It crumpled to ground, and Mendell rolled off into the dust, scrambling for his dropped revolver.
The shotgun bellowed again and one of the other riders was torn from his saddle, his entire shoulder gone.
Mathiue saw the fourth rider fire his pistol, and something slammed into his right shoulder, turning him half around. He went to one knee, suddenly realizing he had been hit. He dropped the rifle and clawed for his revolver with his good hand.
He turned and fired from one knee at the man who had just shot him. At the same instant, the shotgun's roar filled the air a third time, and a gaping hole appeared in the man's chest. Whether he hit him or not, Mathiue never knew, but the man was certainly dead.
Mathiue turned his pistol on Mendell just as the man pulled up on Mathiue. They both fired in the same instant.
Mendell's shot slammed into Mathiue's leg, and Beckett's bullet hit Mendell in the chest; they were both slammed back into the dust, staring into the infinity of the morning sky above them.
Mathiue's hand clawed the dirt as he struggled to rise. He could not.
Jeremiah King paced in his spacious living room, looking at the clock, swearing, turning, and repeating the process. The group was supposed to return right after dealing with those nesters, to pick up Barney and report before heading out to clean up the breaks to the north. It was almost six o'clock in the afternoon.
The five riders that had stayed near the ranch were gathered in the kitchen, speculating over cups of coffee what might have happened.
"I bet they done killed each other off," one said.
"Sure. I heard about that shotgun they had. If they're not back by now, there must have been a shooting," another stated.
"Maybe not." a third put in. "It could be that they're just at a standoff, waiting each other out."
"Ha!" A fourth said. "That Beckett was no fool. He built where you can only come at him from one direction, and fixed it so there's no cover for two hundred and fifty yards in that a-way!
Suddenly King burst into the kitchen.
"Saddle up. We're going out."
The men drained their cups and stepped out to saddle their horses.
It was nearly eight o'clock when they topped the last rise before the Beckett's homestead. Even from that distance they could see the crumpled forms of three men and a horse in front of the house.
"This don't look good," one mumbled.
When they were still twenty yards from the house, a woman stepped out, blood on her apron and a shotgun in her hands. She just stood there as they rode up, holding the shotgun on them from the hip. She looked strained.
The six riders stopped in front of her. There was silence between them for a minute, until King finally spoke.
"I told you to get off my land."
Angie was tired, hurting, and very angry. Three men had died today, and she had killed them herself. Her husband was nearly dead, and another man besides.
"Shut up, King, or I swear your men will carry you home in pieces! Look around you! Was your land worth this? Three of your men dead, and your foreman may die. Not only that, but my husband is nearly dead too! My husband!
"We'd not have bothered you if you had left us alone. We would have lived here quietly, minding our own business. Maybe you might have even decided we were good neighbors, but instead you were detirmined to push us off this, thirty acres. Thirty measly acres, and three men are dead for it!
"Now take your men, dead and living, and get off my land before I blow you out of the saddle!"
Jeremiah King was shocked. He had looked down the barrel of a gun and shot men before, and once a man had called him a liar and King had killed him with his fists, but this he could not stomach. The sight of this woman who was obviously in such great pain hurt him like nothing else had before. He could easily see his own wife standing there, before she had been killed seven years before at the hands of the Comanches. He now saw these two as actual, real people, not merely obstacles to be removed.
"I'm truly sorry, m'am. I'll send a buckboard for Randy."
Angie was not done yet.
"No, you will not! If you try to transport him, he will die before you get him halfway back. I will care for him here."
King nodded and turned to his men.
"Gather them up. We're going home." He gestured towards the dead men.
The men got down and gingerly loaded the bodies of the dead onto the extra horses they had brought.
Then they all mounted up again and rode out of the yard. King was last in line, and just before he exited the yard, he turned back and spoke to Angie in the fading light.
"I hope your husband does not die, m'am. And when they are both better, I would like it if you would come over for dinner sometime. I am also honored to have you as my neighbors."
He sat his horse for a moment, studying her face as she stood there, still holding the shotgun. At last he tipped his hat, reigned his horse around, and rode out of the yard into the twilight.
A single tear ran down Angie's face before she turned back into their house, their home, to care for the two men.